Bush Backtracks on Holding Kostunica's Feet to the Fire

Susan Blaustein writes frequently about the Balkans

Last fall, Congress laid down three conditions in order for the new government in Yugoslavia to receive $100 million in U.S. aid and, more crucially, to be eligible for loans from the International Monetary Fund and the World Bank. Thus far, Yugoslavia has met none of these conditions. Should President George W. Bush nevertheless certify to Congress that Belgrade has complied, he would undermine not only Serbia's progress toward democratization but also U.S. policy throughout the region.

The conditions require Yugoslavia to cut off support for Serb extremists in Bosnia's Republika Srpska, respect minority rights and the rule of law, and cooperate with the International Criminal Tribunal for the Former Yugoslavia by turning over evidence and indicted war criminals to The Hague. They were crafted by Congress to nudge Belgrade's new leaders toward institutionalizing democratic values and to give them political cover for taking difficult, perhaps unpopular steps toward purging the government of its entrenched criminal elite, reaching out to minorities to build a genuinely civil society and giving up all territorial aspirations for a "Greater Serbia."

Problem is, many of Belgrade's new democrats have been eager to take U.S. dollars and international loans, but not to earn them. Yet, the Bush administration appears poised to offer Yugoslav President Vojislav Kostunica a way out.

Earlier this month, the U.S. Belgrade envoy, William D. Montgomery, handed Kostunica a three-page list of watered-down criteria that, if met, would enable the Bush administration to certify that Yugoslavia has made a good-faith effort to fulfill Congress' conditions and merits U.S. aid. Specifically, he reportedly reassured Kostunica that the arrest of former Yugoslav President Slobodan Milosevic and the transfer to The Hague of one other indictee would suffice. But the law requires "the surrender and transfer of indictees," a condition hardly met by the recent voluntary surrender of one relatively low-level Bosnian Serb official or by vague promises to hand over additional non-Yugoslav indictees.

Moreover, should Milosevic actually be arrested--which Serb reformers have wanted to do for some time, being held back only by Kostunica's resistance--Yugoslav officials insist that it would be for economic crimes committed against the Serb people and nation, for which he would be tried domestically. While such charges are serious and credible, only the war-crimes tribunal has the authority to determine whether local trials for local crimes should take precedence over an international one for war crimes. In other words, Milosevic must first be transferred to The Hague, a sine qua non to which the Bush administration has not asked the Kostunica government to commit.

The Bush administration assented to Belgrade officials' insistence on revising Yugoslav law to facilitate cooperation with the tribunal, including the extradition of Yugoslav indictees. But the extradition issue is a red herring that has only served to delay cooperation. Nowhere does the Yugoslav constitution preclude the transfer of indicted nationals to an international institution. Revising the law could take months, during which time Milosevic could not only exert a toxic influence on Serbian political developments, but also could manage to get his hands on some of his stashed assets and flee to a third country even less likely to hand him over to The Hague.

The Bush administration also reportedly advised Kostunica that Yugoslav support for Bosnia's Republika Srpska should be made transparent. But Congress explicitly calls upon Belgrade "to end"--not to render transparent--"Serbian financial, political, security and other support" for separate Bosnian Serb institutions, which include the Bosnian Serb army and the extreme nationalist party of the indicted former Bosnian Serb president, Radovan Karadzic. The cutoff has not taken place. To the contrary. As one of his first official acts, Kostunica attended a campaign rally in the Republika Srpska for Karadzic's party. Three weeks ago, he signed an agreement for special relations with the Serb republic, bolstering Bosnian Serb aspirations to reunite with Serbia. Belgrade still pays the salaries and pensions of officers in the Bosnian Serb army, state security and counterintelligence forces, many of whom are alleged war criminals. Should the administration sign off on Belgrade's performance to date, U.S. tax dollars may subsidize the retirement plans of those who brought the world the Bosnian war.

While non-Serbs are no longer being murdered or forced from their homes, the Serbian branch of the International Helsinki Foundation reports that oppression of minorities persists under Kostunica among the largely Hungarian population in the Vojvodina, the Muslims in the Sandzak, Albanians, Roma and Jews. Upon assuming office, Kostunica squandered the opportunity to release the hundreds of Albanians illegally detained in Serbian prisons since the Kosovo war.

Instead, the Yugoslav president implicitly accepted Milosevic's travesty of a criminal-justice system by taking a legalistic approach to the prisoners' fate, which has prolonged Kosovo's agony and exacerbated Albanian-Serb tensions. After buying international goodwill by releasing a few prominent prisoners, Kostunica took months to come up with an amnesty law that permitted the release of 150 more; he has insisted on personally reviewing each of the remaining cases, several hundred of which he, like Milosevic, insists were "terrorist" acts that merit severe punishment.

This special treatment for Serbia has endangered the new democratic government in Croatia, which has braved considerable risks to win U.S. assistance and international loans by complying with an almost identical set of conditions. In Croatia, as in other East European countries in transition, democrats have welcomed such quid pro quos to justify much-needed reform and political change.

The opposite has been true of Yugoslavia. During and since last summer's election campaign, Kostunica has been backed by the same alliance of army, church and intellectuals who first devised the "Greater Serbia" project in the 1980s. A far more committed nationalist than the opportunistic, power-hungry Milosevic, Kostunica has, thus far, in his personnel and policy choices, exhibited more continuity than disjunction with the former regime. Should Bush join European nations in their unconditional embrace of this singularly unrepentant, nationalist government, his move will likely stoke radical nationalist aspirations in a precariously maintained Bosnia-Herzegovina and push Albanian extremists to escalate their guerrilla actions in Kosovo, southern Serbia and Macedonia.

Without being too onerous, Congress' three conditions afford Belgrade the opportunity to define its operating standards simply by adhering to democratic principles and the rule of law. The Hague tribunal's chief prosecutor has found the U.S. law so helpful that she recently asked the European Union to replicate it. With a clear interest in starting off on a strong foreign-policy footing, the Bush administration would do well to applaud Congress' caution and foresight, encourage its European allies to follow suit and not undermine the law at this critical juncture by giving Belgrade a pass where none is due.

Copyright © 2019, Los Angeles Times
EDITION: California | U.S. & World